IRAs can be complicated – but they don’t have to be. The reality is, there are only a few rules and limitations to be mindful of in order to make maximum use of the available options. Let’s take a look together and see how straight forward it really is
This is the standard IRA. It’s also known as the traditional or deductible IRA. If you have taxable earned income, you are eligible to contribute to this plan (but if you or your spouse have a plan at work, you may not be able to deduct the contribution).
In 2015, the contribution limit is $5,500 ($6,500 if you are 50 or better). When you make a contribution, you deduct that amount from your taxable earned income, reducing your income tax. That’s the reason most people have traditional IRAs – for the tax write-off. Even though that’s why we make the contribution – that’s not the real payoff.
The real benefit of any IRA is that it’s a forced savings. In my experience, by the time we retire we have most of our liquid assets in our retirement accounts for exactly that reason. It’s money that is expensive to access (considering income tax and potential penalties) so we tend not to spend it.
You can invest your IRA – any IRA – any way you want. You can also open an IRA account until April 15th of the following year. So for your 2014 tax return, you can open and fund an IRA up until April 15th 2015. For your 2015 IRA, you can fund it anytime between January 1st 2015 and April 15th, 2016.
While the money is in the traditional IRA it grows and you don’t have to pay any taxes on it. You only pay tax on the money you withdraw as you withdraw it. (Make sure you understand IRA withdrawal rules.) The only drawback is that you pay income tax (as opposed to capital gains) on every dime as you withdraw.
Let me give you an example.
Let’s assume that over the years, your total contributions add up to $100,000. But because the market tumbles by the time you retire, the account drops to $25,000. You lost $75,000 but you don’t get a write-off for the losses. No, sir. You will pay full income tax on the $25,000 as you withdraw it.
Of course if your $100,000 grows to $500,000, you will pay income tax on that $500,000 as you withdraw it as well. And remember, while that grew from $100k to $500k, you didn’t pay a dime in tax. Cool.
You may withdraw the money penalty-free starting at age 59 ½ and you must start making withdrawals at age 70 ½. Once you reach age 70 ½, you can’t make any more contributions to an IRA – even if you still work. Whaaaa.
a. Income – you have to have earned income in order to contribute.
b. Age – you can’t contribute after 70 1/2.
c. Phaseout – If you or your spouse are eligible to participate in a retirement plan at work, you can still make contributions to an IRA – but you may or may not be able to deduct some or all of those contributions. It depends on your income. Even if you aren’t covered by a retirement plan at work, if your modified adjusted gross income exceeds a certain amount, you may not be able to deduct those contributions.
Bottom line – The traditional IRA is great if:
a. You have earned income.
b. You contributions are fully deductible and not impacted by the phaseouts.
c. You are in a high tax bracket now and you think you’ll be in a lower tax bracket when you retire.
d. You don’t have other retirement plan options available at work.
The Roth IRA has the same contribution limits as the traditional IRA.
The Roth IRA grows tax-free and allows you to withdraw the money tax-free too. SWEET! However, in order to make those tax-free withdrawals you must be older than 59 ½ and have owned the account at least five years.
You can make contributions as long as you’re alive – as long as you have earned income. There are no age restrictions. To make things even more attractive, you never have to take required minimum distributions from your own Roth. Your Roth beneficiary also has some very attractive benefits. Finally, even if you have a plan at work, you can still contribute to your Roth.
The only downside is that your contributions are not tax-deductible.
Income – In order to make contributions, you have to have earned income. But if you have too much income, you can’t contribute to the Roth. For 2015, eligibility for Roth contributions is phased out between adjusted gross income (AGI) of $183,000 and $193,000 for joint filers and between $116,000 and $131,000 for singles.
Bottom line – The Roth is very good for young people who have earned income – assuming they don’t change the law. It’s a pretty safe bet that tax rates will rise so if they don’t change the rules a Roth is a great vehicle for young tax payers. Some experts say that the best IRA investments for Roth accounts tap into long-term growth – and that means equity growth. Something for you to consider Pilgrim.
Having said that, I’d max out on the tax-deductible traditional IRA and then turn to a Roth. I’d rather have a tax deduction in the hand than a promise by the government for future benefits. But that’s just me and my situation could be different from yours. I suggest you speak with your own tax expert before deciding. Keep in mind that any amount you contribute to a traditional IRA reduces the amount you can contribute to a Roth.
If you are in business for yourself with 100 employees or less, a SIMPLE IRA might be a great fit. They are easier and cheaper than 401k plans. Typically, if the employee makes a contribution, the employer has to match it (up to 3% of pay).
You can contribute up to $12,500 in 2015 and you can bump it by $3,000 if you are over 50 years of age.
Either the employer offers this plan or she doesn’t. You usually can’t force the issue.
Bottom line – If your employer offers this plan, get involved and max out your contributions before you worry about any other plan.
These plans are less popular with employers for one simple reason: your employer makes the contributions for you. You don’t put in a dime. The contributions can’t exceed $53,000 in 2015 or a maximum of 20% of the employee’s compensation. The contributions to the plan are tax-deductible and, like the traditional IRA, all withdrawals are taxable.
You can’t force your employer to make this plan available either.
Bottom line – If your employer offers this plan, send her flowers and name your child after her – even if it’s a boy.
If you are a stay-at-home dad or mom, I have some great news: you can still have an IRA. The contributions are the same as the traditional IRA and you make contributions even if you have no earned income.
The working spouse’s income determines how much (if any) you can contribute to a Spousal IRA.
Bottom line – If you have the cash to contribute to this plan, do it. It is a great tax deduction and a way to force yourself to save for the future.
If you have a 401k or other retirement plan that was offered at work, you may be able to roll it over to your own IRA. This is known as a rollover IRA.
Once you do the rollover, you can make contributions to it as if it’s a traditional IRA with the same limits listed above.
Once the money from an employer plan is rolled over to Rollover IRA, you are subject to the same restrictions as the traditional IRA.
Bottom line – The only choice you have here is whether or not to keep the money at your former employer or do a tax-free IRA rollover. That has pros and cons and is the subject of a post in and of itself. The argument for is that you have much more control and flexibility. The argument against is that with an employer plan, you may have more favorable distribution options.
In most cases, I favor the IRA rollover.
Final Bottom Line
If you have a choice, it’s almost always best to first max out on your contributions to an employer plan. This is because they typically offer some matching. Even if they don’t, the employer plan is the safer bet. This is because you might not be able to make deductible contributions to an IRA if you or your spouse have a plan at work.
I personally like the deductible plans rather than Roth because I have no idea what the government is going to do in the future and I like having the deduction now. Perhaps this is short-term thinking. Anyway, that’s why I’d only go for the Roth if I didn’t have a deductible plan available.
What kind of plan do you have? Why do you participate in it and not some other plan?